Matthew Dietrich: When Karen Lewis speakers, Chicago listens… and responds

Nobody these days stirs instant controversy in Chicago (and in education reform circles nationally) than Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. This week she did it with three simple words: “rich white people.”

Lewis’ outspokenness on issues of class and race as they pertain to public education in Chicago has grown exponentially as Mayor Rahm Emanuel mounted the campaign that led to last month’s decision to close 50 underutilized schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Her theme has been consistent: The austerity measures imposed by Chicago Public Schools have fallen disproportionately on African-American students.

In a speech to the City Club of Chicago this week, Lewis turned up the rhetoric even higher. (Video is here.)

“When will we address the effect that rich white people think they know what’s in the best interest of children of African Americans and Latinos, no matter what the parents’ income or education level,” Lewis said. She took specific aim at the wealthy Emanuel’s circle of wealthy education advisers: “And when did all these venture capitalists become so interested in the lives of minority students in the first place? There’s something about these folks who love the kids but hate their parents. There’s something about these folks who use little black and brown children as stage props at one press conference while announcing they want to fire, layoff or lock up their parents at another press conference.”

Even by Lewis’ standards for heated rhetoric, assigning hatred to a whole class of people — yes, even a very rich class of people who, yes, are concerned that Chicago has a very troubled public school system — may have crossed a line.

I saw Lewis speak at the City Club earlier this year and I can tell you that, for all the fire and brimstone you see in video news bites of Lewis, she’s also got a thoughtful, genuine, sincere side that conveys a deep conviction to her profession. Then again, it’s the fire and brimstone that makes the evening news, the YouTube video highlights and morning headlines.

And in this case, it ensured that Lewis’ City Club address — regardless of everything else she said in it — will forever be known as the “rich, white people” speech.

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